House puts carbon cap-and-trade gears in motion with RGGI bill vote

Coal fired units at Dominion Energy's Chesterfield Power Station would close by 2024 under the Clean Economy Act that passed the General Assembly last year. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

After a few false starts, carbon cap-and-trade legislation began moving Thursday night with a favorable vote by the House Energy Subcommittee.

Along party lines, the subcommittee passed House Majority Leader Charniele Herring’s Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, which would bring Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

A 10-state compact that aims to cut carbon emissions through market mechanisms, RGGI is one of Democrats’ top-line environmental goals for the session. Virginia came within a hair’s breadth of joining the initiative last year but was stymied by budget language championed by Republican Del. Charles Poindexter of Franklin that prohibited the state from spending any funds on membership. 

Administration support Thursday came from Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler, who told the subcommittee that RGGI “has proven the power of the market to drive down pollution,” and Special Assistant for Coastal Adaptation Ann Phillips, who said Herring’s bill would allow “a dramatic improvement” in the state’s ability to deal with “existential recurrent flooding threats.”

Despite the sweeping impact the legislation would have on state policy, discussion among delegates was limited, with Herring pledging to hammer out details between Thursday and the bill being taken up by full committee.

“I’m not saying I’m supportive of the bill, but I’m fine with moving forward,” said Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, shortly before voting against it.

Brett Vassey, executive director of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, also expressed qualms about the distribution of RGGI auction proceeds to the state, arguing that the funds should be returned to ratepayers.

Under Herring’s proposal, all proceeds would be deposited in a state fund for distribution to the renamed Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund, low-income energy efficiency programs and statewide climate change planning and mitigation efforts.

The bill will now be taken up by the full Labor and Commerce Committee.

Subcommittee chair Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, immediately followed the vote with consideration of a bill from Poindexter that would prohibit Virginia from joining RGGI until both the House and Senate adopted a resolution “that specifically references and approves the regulatory text proposed for adoption by a state agency.”

Poindexter’s bill was struck down on the same party line.